Disc Golf and Philosophy
Developing the Long Game
By Strand Sheldahl-Thomason
Every disc golfer has heard the slogan “grow the sport,” so it shouldn’t be a surprise that disc golf is, indeed, growing. In fact, it’s blowing up right now. The Professional Disc Golf Association has raced past 100,000 members to over 130,000 (I’m number 100145). Tournaments are filling up faster than ever. Jussi Meresmaa was recently on Ultiworld’s “The Upshot” podcast, and he revealed that sales of Discmania starter packs are way up in 2020. Some of this surge in interest is because of the pandemic (disc golf is played outside, with easy social distancing), but the sport has been growing rapidly in recent years anyway. The professional field is stronger than it has ever been, with players like Paul McBeth, Ricky Wysocki, and Paige Pierce consistently being challenged by the likes of Eagle McMahon and Catrina Allen, with Kevin Jones and Missy Gannon on the rise. Listen to any recent commentary by Big Sexy and you’ll hear how it boggles the minds of slightly older players like Jeremy Koling and Nate Sexton that so many players in the professional field can throw over 600 feet. Speaking of Big Sexy, next day Jomez coverage regularly gets hundreds of thousands of views, and the front nine of the final round of the 2019 men’s world championships has been viewed over 3 million times and counting. Online live coverage is expanding as well. If you prefer watching sports on a major network, CBS Sports is broadcasting a recent tournament on the nights of August 26th to August 29th, 2020.
While not just anyone can throw 600 feet, just anyone can play disc golf and find it rewarding, and increasingly, anyone and everyone does play disc golf. Borrow some used discs and find one of the 6,652 mostly free-to-play courses in the United States (scrounge together $5 if the course you want to play happens to be in a state park), and you’re in. Through disc golf, I have met farmers, IT specialists, engineers, roofers, agronomists, graphic designers, and yes, fellow philosophers. You could say that disc golf is a “big tent” sport. I believe that the above statistics are just the beginning of a long upward trend. It’s safe to say that disc golf is an emerging cultural force, and I’m excited to see what the cultural impact of the sport will ultimately be. The numbers are impressive for a relatively young sport like disc golf, but what’s more impressive is that the sport has reached this level through grassroots scrappiness. Perhaps it’s partly a sign of the times, but disc golf got where it is through unconventional means like YouTube and good old word of mouth. Disc golfers have to be good at scrambling to succeed, and when it comes to growing the sport, we’ve scrambled for a birdie.
By contrast, philosophy is an ancient cultural force. Yet philosophy is and always has been a grassroots endeavor. Sure, as an academic field it is a pillar of the humanities, and no self-respecting university can get by without having a philosophy department. Yet baked in to the nature of philosophy is an up-start sensibility. Socrates conducted philosophy in the streets, engaging in long conversations with small groups. He would speak with anyone who would take the time. One of Plato’s famous dialogues featuring Socrates is called the Symposium. Today, professional academics will still have symposia, but basically the word means drinking party. In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates and his friends are hanging out and getting drunk and talking about love. When it comes to doing philosophy, method is, or should be, always in question. Because of this, philosophers often have the sense that, despite the many institutional apparatuses that sometimes support us, we are forever building our field from the ground up. The fact that philosophy is never really settled makes philosophy a “big tent” in its own right. Think of Diogenes the Cynic, who flouted convention at every turn to the point of living with virtually no possessions and mocking his fellow ancient Greeks for doing things like cooking their food. Philosophers count him as one of their own alongside the aristocratic Aristotle, who was a tutor to Alexander the Great. Ultimately, philosophers are a rag-tag team of misfits who like to talk and reflect and build things together. Today, a lot of those same misfits also play disc golf.
So disc golf and philosophy both attract a wide range of people, both are scrappy and inventive and make themselves on the fly, and disc golf and philosophy alike bring together a wide range of people. In addition to these structural similarities, there is a lot about disc golf that is attractive to philosophers. Like all good games, disc golf is easy to learn, but extremely difficult to master. In this respect disc golf has something in common with poker, but a more apt comparison would be to martial arts or, yes, ball golf. One thing that gets people hooked on golf of any type is that it looks so easy, but it ends up being so hard. Anyone can hit a ball with a stick, but very few people can drive a golf ball 300 yards and place it on the green. Likewise, anyone can throw a Frisbee, but very few people can throw a golf disc 450 feet through the trees and leave themselves with a putt. When it comes to disc golf, the difficulty of mastering this physical skill is ripe for philosophical exploration. It is something of a commonplace among disc golfers that to really improve, to continue adding distance and accuracy after you have been practicing and playing for a while, you have to videotape yourself throwing. This is because it is very difficult to get your body to do the motions that your mind is telling it to do. I always think I look like Paul McBeth when I throw, but in reality I look like an uncoordinated mess. This gap between the mind and the body is philosophically rich territory. Disc golf helps illuminate philosophical problems surrounding mind-body dualism, or the idea that the mind and body are two distinct substances. Trying to throw far does indeed make you feel like your mind is a radically different substance that can hardly communicate with your body.
Playing disc golf also may help us overcome dualism, which has been a philosophically entrenched position since Descartes wrote about it in the mid 1600s. Specifically, playing disc golf can help us return to a pre-theoretical, embodied standpoint from which the problem of dualism appears as a pseudo-problem. When you’re playing disc golf, you are not a mind cut off from the world. You are on the course and, to adapt a phrase from Martin Heidegger, absorbed in a world of concern with your discs, the baskets, and your friends. It is only if this experience of involvement is forgotten that the mind-body problem appears as a problem. To put this point in disc golf terms, your drive is just your drive, and when you are driving, you are involved with your drive to the point of identification. Only when you shank your driver into the first available tree might you then stare at your driver and see it as some inert thing. When you’re staring at it as some inert thing you come to see yourself as a thing too, and then you might wonder why you are so bad at driving and why you can’t get the disc to do what you want. This way of thinking about yourself and the disc is not bad in itself, but it can conceal the more immediate experience of throwing. If you want to develop better drives, dwelling on the mind-body problem certainly won’t help.
If you think it’s easy to overthink your drives, try putting. Putting success is inversely proportional to how blank your mind is as you are putting. Every disc golfer knows this, yet we still miss inside-the-circle putts all the time because we can’t get out of our own heads. Every disc golfer who has been frustrated by this has implicitly raised the question of the evolutionary value of consciousness, whether they were conscious of it or not. It might seem obvious that consciousness is good for our lives. We can be conscious of threats and learn to avoid them, for example. However, Friedrich Nietzsche would disagree with this assessment of the value of consciousness. For Nietzsche, the “I” is a fiction that is used to thwart our natural, active drives. We are nothing but a collection of drives (drives is meant here in the psychological sense, not the disc golf sense), and reflective consciousness is an aberration that impedes our lives (and hampers our ability to putt). On the other hand, Nietzsche thinks that the self, while not something natural or given, is something that may be achieved. The Nietzschean person resolves to live an active rather than reactive life and to affirm their life as something that could be repeated eternally. The Nietzschean disc golfer putts as though each putt will be repeated eternally.
These confounding mental and physical issues aside, disc golf is a beautiful game. Nothing compares with the satisfaction of connecting on a drive just right, or pureing a tight gap, or smashing a long putt dead in the center of the heart of the chains. It is almost as satisfying to see someone else (like Simon Lizotte) effortlessly launch a deep, perfectly placed shot. One way to think of this beauty is through our relationship to space. Disc golf courses are of necessity striated spaces, to use terminology developed by Gilles Deleuze. That is, they are divided and segmented more or less artificially. The challenge facing the disc golfer is to smooth out this space, to find an elegant way across it to the target. Disc golf also allows participants to experience a good deal of natural beauty. Unlike ball golf, disc golf courses often play through the woods, and they are far less manicured than ball golf courses are. One of my best disc-golfing friends likes to say that playing disc golf is like going for a hike, but with 18 stops to throw discs. This facet of the game provides the occasion for disc golfers to ask and answer Nate Sexton’s eternal question, “Why are trees?” Disc golf can lead to deep ecological reflections on the human relationship to and place in the natural world. Playing disc golf cultivates a sense of connection to the land, and exposure to nature on the disc golf course makes us cognizant of the fact that humans are part of broader ecological systems, not the culmination of those systems.
America is still a very wild country, and that wildness extends to American society. Although disc golf is popular around the world, the way disc golf is played reflects a certain American wildness. As I’ve already alluded to, disc golf is more accessible than ball golf and many other sports. Ball golf is virtually synonymous with elitism and stuffiness. Perhaps because it is a younger sport, disc golf has a more relaxed feel to it. Unlike ball golf, with its maze of arcane rules and its use of rules officials, the rules of disc golf are straightforward, and disc golfers police each other. Some of my favorite recorded disc golf moments are top players coming together to discuss whether a lie is out of bounds. If there is any doubt, they happily give the benefit to the player. The accessibility of disc golf can tinge the disc golf course with the bawdiness of the Greek agora. For everyone, but especially for academics, meeting places where people from across society can come together on equal footing are increasingly important. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls such places that are neither the home nor the workplace “third spaces.” The disc golf course is certainly a third space. I have found that disc golf is a great way to forge friendships of pleasure. In fact, when I teach Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship in an introductory class, I use my disc golf buddies as examples of friends of pleasure. I know my disc golf buddies because of our shared interest in disc golf, and our relationships don’t extend far beyond the course (though many of us also like good beer). Some people I play disc golf with are friends of virtue—we are friends because of our shared values and our shared interests, and we care about each other as extensions of ourselves. Those friendships are great, but not every friendship can or should be a friendship of virtue. Friendships of pleasure that allow for low-stakes exchange between people with different values, perspectives, and politics are good because they are pleasant and they are also good for the health of democracy. If disc golf promotes such friendships, so much the better.
Take away all the people and forget about marking your lie properly and it’s just you alone with your discs and the baskets and the trees. A solo round of disc golf can be therapeutic, especially after a long day of work. A walk in nature with a pleasantly distracting activity allows the mind to wander. This can be good for creativity because it allows whatever you are working on to simmer on the back burner of the brain. It can also be anxiety-provoking in the existential sense. For existentialists like Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, anxiety is that mood that brings you face to face with your own existence. It throws your life into relief and spurs you to take responsibility for your own life. A solo round of disc golf can leave a person with a fresh chance to take up the possibilities that their life presents. After all, soon enough you’ll find yourself facing that death putt, and you’ll want to know that your round up to that point has been resolutely your own. Reading this post probably won’t make your drives go deeper, but it might make your thoughts go deeper, and it might make you a better person to boot. Like disc golf, that would be great for everyone.
Strand Sheldahl-Thomason is a Limited Term Lecturer in the philosophy program at Purdue University Fort Wayne. He is an avid disc golfer who wishes he were better at it. Information about Strand’s work can be found at strandreidar.com.